The rise of xenophobia and the case of Mesut Özil

Because I have family connections to Germany, I always follow events there very closely. And one event on my radar screen has been the controversy surrounding Arsenal football star Mesut Özil, who has retired from international football after receiving racially-charged criticism leading up to and following the World Cup this year. I see the Özil controversy as yet another sign of xenophobia and nativism that is rising everywhere in Europe and the US at the moment. I have some comments below.

The Erdoğan picture

Let’s start here:


Ozil and ErdoganGundugan and Erdogan

Source: The Guardian

These picture from May are what started the whole thing. German fans were particularly incensed because in a message written on his Manchester City shirt, Gündogan called Turkish president Erdoğan “my president”.

Here’s what the Guardian said at the time:

Two German footballers of Turkish heritage posing for photographs with the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, have reignited a debate over dual citizenship and national identity in Germany, as the country embarks on a bid to defend its World Cup title.

Midfielders Mesut Özil and Ilkay Gündoğan, who currently play for Arsenal and Manchester City in the Premier League and are both set to represent their birth country at the tournament in Russia this summer, were criticised by politicians including the chancellor, Angela Merkel, for meeting with Erdoğan during his visit to the UK.

In a meeting at London’s Four Seasons hotel on Sunday evening, which was also attended by German-born Everton striker Cenk Tosun, the players handed signed club shirts to the leader of Turkey’s Justice and Development (AKP) party. The shirt given by Gündoğan, who holds German and Turkish passports, bore the message: “To my president, with my respects.”

The pictures amount to a PR coup for Erdoğan, who is seeking to extend his 15-year rule in a snap poll on 24 June but is banned from holding election campaign rallies on German soil. About 1.2 million people in Germany with a Turkish background are eligible to vote in the election.

Diplomatic relations between Germany and Turkey were already frayed over the one-year imprisonment of recently released German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yücel. But the backlash to the incident has been even louder because Özil and Gündoğan have both been championed as successful examples of Germany’s policy of cultural integration.

World Cup winner Özil was awarded an “integration” prize by the Hubert Burda Media group in 2010. That year the president of Germany’s football association (DFB) had complained about politicising football after Merkel made an unscheduled visit to the Germany changing room following a 3-0 win over Turkey. Photographs of the German chancellor shaking goalscorer Özil’s hand were distributed by the government to the press afterwards.

Gündoğan is booed by his own fans and then apologizes

Following the picture, the German FA slammed the two German players for having allowed themselves to be “manipulated” by Erdoğan.

That’s why it’s not good that international players allow themselves to be manipulated for his electoral campaign.

In doing that, our players have certainly not helped the DFB’s work on integration.

In June, Germany played a friendly that they won against Saudi Arabia in Leverkusen, in Germany’s industrial heartland. Gündoğan — who was born in nearby Bochum and, like Özil, grew up in Gelsenkirchen, another nearby town, played youth football for Bochum’s biggest club, Vfl Bochum, and five years at nearby Borussia Dortmund — was booed… by his own fans. Özil did not play that game.

After the match, Germany’s coach Joachim Löw said: “First of all, having a national player booed like that helps nobody. I ask you this — what should Ilkay do now?”

Later, Gündoğan said: “I feel privileged to have grown up in Germany so it was a heavy blow for me to be portrayed as somebody who isn’t integrated and who doesn’t live his life according to German values.”

Özil stayed quiet.

Özil retires

Germany exited at the group stage of the World Cup, their worst performance since 1938. And more recrimination began. Özil came in for much of it, with many of the attacks being personal and xenophobic in nature. Fed up with a perceived lack of support from the German Football Association, he retired from international play in July. His statement caused further controversy. In it, he said:

… Whilst I grew up in Germany, my family background has its roots firmly based in Turkey. I have two hearts, one German and one Turkish. During my childhood, my mother taught me to always be respectful and to never forget where I came from, and these are still values that I think about to this day.

In May, I met President Erdogan in London, during a charitable and educational event. We first met in 2010 after he and Angela Merkel watched the Germany vs. Turkey match together in Berlin. Since then, our paths have crossed a lot of times around the globe. I’m aware that the picture of us caused a huge response in the German media, and whilst some people may accuse me of lying or being deceitful, the picture we took had no political intentions.

As I said, my mother has never let me lose sight of my ancestry, heritage and family traditions. For me, having a picture with President Erdogan wasn’t about politics or elections, it was about me respecting the highest office of my family’s country. My job is a football player and not a politician, and our meeting was not an endorsement of any policies. In fact, we spoke about the same topic that we do every time we have met – football – as he too was a player in his youth.

…I’m not a perfect footballer and this often motivates me to work and train harder. But what I can’t accept, are German media outlets repeatedly blaming my dual-heritage and a simple picture for a bad World Cup on behalf of an entire squad.

Certain German newspapers are using my background and photo with President Erdogan as right-wing propaganda to further their political cause. Why else did they use pictures and headlines with my name as a direct explanation for defeat in Russia?

They didn‘t criticise my performances. They didn‘t criticise the team‘s performances, they just criticised my Turkish ancestry and respect for my upbringing. This crosses a personal line that should never be crossed, as newspapers try to turn the nation of Germany against me…

Arguably the issue that has frustrated me the most over the past couple of months has been the mistreatment from the DFB, and in particular the OPE President Reinhard Grindel. After my picture with President Erdogan l was asked by Joachim Low to cut short my holiday and go to Berlin and give a joint statement to end all the talk and set the record straight.

Whilst I attempted to explain to Grindel my heritage, ancestry and therefore reasoning behind the photo, he was far more interested in speaking about his own political views and belittling my opinion.

…In the eyes of Grindel and his supporters, I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose. This is because despite paying taxes in Germany, donating facilities to German schools and winning the World Cup with Germany in 2014, I am still not accepted into society. I am treated as being ‘different’. I received the ‘Bambi Award’ in 2010 as an example of successful integration to German society, I received a ‘Silver Laurel Leaf’ in 2014 from the Federal Republic of Germany, and I was a ’German Football Ambassador’ in 2015. But clearly, I am not German.. .?

That’s an extraordinary condemnation.

Why am I posting this?

Over the past couple of weeks, a few German players have made comments distancing themselves from Özil. I’m thinking principally of Manuel Neuer, Toni Kroos, and Thomas Müller.

The coach, Joachim Löw, said he was saddened by Özil’s decision to go public with his retirement announcement without first talking to him in private. And Löw also said he hasn’t spoken to Özil since.

That’s a lot of criticism.

Personally, I thought their comments were petty, unfair, and dishonest, especially Kroos’. I lost a great deal of respect for them. And it certainly doesn’t help matters since Gündoğan was booed again when Germany played France recently.

So, it was heartening for me this morning to see that German international Jérôme Boateng defended Özil. But it was what Boateng’s half-brother Kevin-Prince said that made me write this post.

Here’s the key bit:

Former AC Milan and Eintracht Frankfurt star Boateng also expressed his surprise at the racist elements emerging in Germany, particularly in the city of Chemnitz where far-right demonstrators held a march following the death of a German citizen who was involved in a fight with two Afghan nationals.

Over 2,500 people attended the march, including between 400 and 500 known extremists, with videos posted online showing many of the participants joining in a chant of “national socialism, now, now now.

Boateng is shocked by the events and has called on the government to step in to prevent more similar protests happening in his home country.

“It’s alarming that this will happen and that it will be more and more, we have to wake up quickly, we have to do something about it,” Boateng inisisted.

“There are 2,500 people walking through Chemnitz doing the Hitler salute. These pictures and videos go out into the world, they shamelessly use a whole city as a projection screen for their activities. You have to shut it down, you cannot simply accept it.”

That’s it exactly.

For me, the case of Mesut Özil is emblematic of the times we are living in. Xenophobia in Germany is well out of control, just as it is in the US and many other western countries.

We are living through a dark and ugly period that I feel is only going to get worse.

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